This fruit is a definite conversation starter, and it’s delicious too.
Most of the vegetables that we grow come from other parts of the world, but if we do a little investigation we will find all sorts of interesting African edible plants. Some of them are indigenous species, while others are heirloom varieties created here. We plan on highlighting these fascinating (and often tasty!) plants, which are becoming more readily available. First up, the unique horned cucumber…
The horned cucumber (Cucumis metuliferus) is a fascinating plant with a long list of nom de guerre: African horned cucumber, wild cucumber, horned melon, spiked melon, jelly melon, kiwano and, my favourite, the cuke-a-saurus. They have been cultivated for over 3000 years for the edible fruit and their appearance.
A point that we should all remember, even if it is obvious, is that an indigenous plant isn’t necessarily indigenous to your particular climate, so we can’t assume that if we plonk any indigenous plant in our garden that it will thrive. The jelly melon is indigenous to the warmer, drier areas of our sub-continent, like the Kalahari, and doesn’t tolerate frost or too much mist and drizzle.
The plant itself is a climber that will vigorously wend its way through and over your garden, so it does need to be kept in check. Alternatively, support it with a trellis and trim off errant tendrils. Grow like a cucumber, by sowing the seed (which is available locally, usually on the heirloom seed websites) in the garden in spring. It needs full sun and well-drained soil, and has a preference for a slight acidity to the soil. Add compost to the soil before planting, along with a handful of slow-release fertiliser. Water regularly and deeply for strong roots, and try to keep the foliage dry when you do so. Germination will be within 7 – 10 days. The fruit is ready when it is bright orange, around 120 days after sowing, and can be clipped off with secateurs. Wear gloves when harvesting and handling the fruit to avoid spiking your skin. A great advantage of the jelly melon is that the fruit has a long shelf-life, so it can be displayed in the fruit bowl for weeks before you eat it. If you leave it on the plant for too long, though, the fruit will burst open to release the seeds.
The horned cucumber is part of the cucumber and melon family, Cucurbitaceae, but the flavour of the fruit is bolder and more tropical than you’d expect: it starts out with a flavour similar to that of a sweet citrus, but as it ripens this taste profile changes to one that is usually described as a mix of kiwi, citrus and banana, with a hint of granadilla. The easiest way to eat one is to cut it in half and scoop out the lime-green flesh with a teaspoon, but they can also be added to smoothies, fruit salads or desserts. In terms of nutrition, the cuke-a-saurus is low in calories but high in fibre, so is a good food for a weight-control diet. It also contains vitamins A and C (up to 40% of the RDA) and even has more potassium than a banana! It also supplies us with antioxidants and other minerals. It seems ridiculous that the jelly melon isn’t a regular feature on the fruit shelves of our local supermarkets, because it is grown commercially in a host of other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the States.